Commentary Magazine


Topic: Michel Suleiman

Who Is Najib Miqati?

So Hezbollah did it. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been replaced with Najib Miqati, a man billed as a “compromise” leader who is time zones away from being a Hezbollah member but who nevertheless agrees with Hezbollah on the few things — which ultimately add up to everything — that matter most.

Miqati says he’s an independent centrist who disagrees with Hezbollah as much as he disagrees with everyone else in Lebanon. I believe him, actually, so long as he’s referring to the number of things he disagrees with Hezbollah about. He’s a Sunni and therefore obviously not a cheerleader for the parochial Shia sectarian interests that Hezbollah champions. There’s no chance he endorses the Iranian government’s reigning ideology of Velayat-e faqih, the totalitarian theocratic system Hezbollah would love to impose on Lebanon if it had the strength — which it doesn’t. Miqati is a billionaire businessman and does not even remotely share Hezbollah’s cartoonish paranoia about global capitalism and how it’s supposedly a nefarious Jewish-American plot.

What Miqati will do, however, is safeguard “the resistance,” as he has promised — meaning he won’t ask Hezbollah to hand over its weapons to the authorities — which is one of only two things Hezbollah requires of him. The second is repudiate the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Everyone now expects the tribunal to indict Hezbollah for the assassination of the Sunni former prime minister Rafik Hariri, an event that may severely damage Hezbollah’s standing in the majority-Sunni Arab world even if it does have a prominent Sunni willing to provide some cover.

Hezbollah also needs, and will get, the same from Lebanon’s Christian president Michel Suleiman. Anything else these two leaders do in their official capacities is irrelevant from Hezbollah’s perspective.

Lebanon won’t likely ever resemble Gaza, which is under the complete control of an Islamist terrorist army. Hamas rules that beleaguered territory as the virtual Taliban of the eastern Mediterranean, but the Lebanese will blow their country to hell and gone all over again before submitting to something like that. Hezbollah knows it, as do the Syrians and the Iranians. They also know, or at least think they know, that they can bully the rest of the country into surrendering on the two most crucial items on its agenda, the ones that give Hezbollah the latitude to do whatever it wants in the Shia-majority areas that it does control directly.

We’re about to find out if that’s actually true. We’ll also most likely find out how true it remains if Israel takes the gloves off the next time there’s war.

So Hezbollah did it. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been replaced with Najib Miqati, a man billed as a “compromise” leader who is time zones away from being a Hezbollah member but who nevertheless agrees with Hezbollah on the few things — which ultimately add up to everything — that matter most.

Miqati says he’s an independent centrist who disagrees with Hezbollah as much as he disagrees with everyone else in Lebanon. I believe him, actually, so long as he’s referring to the number of things he disagrees with Hezbollah about. He’s a Sunni and therefore obviously not a cheerleader for the parochial Shia sectarian interests that Hezbollah champions. There’s no chance he endorses the Iranian government’s reigning ideology of Velayat-e faqih, the totalitarian theocratic system Hezbollah would love to impose on Lebanon if it had the strength — which it doesn’t. Miqati is a billionaire businessman and does not even remotely share Hezbollah’s cartoonish paranoia about global capitalism and how it’s supposedly a nefarious Jewish-American plot.

What Miqati will do, however, is safeguard “the resistance,” as he has promised — meaning he won’t ask Hezbollah to hand over its weapons to the authorities — which is one of only two things Hezbollah requires of him. The second is repudiate the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Everyone now expects the tribunal to indict Hezbollah for the assassination of the Sunni former prime minister Rafik Hariri, an event that may severely damage Hezbollah’s standing in the majority-Sunni Arab world even if it does have a prominent Sunni willing to provide some cover.

Hezbollah also needs, and will get, the same from Lebanon’s Christian president Michel Suleiman. Anything else these two leaders do in their official capacities is irrelevant from Hezbollah’s perspective.

Lebanon won’t likely ever resemble Gaza, which is under the complete control of an Islamist terrorist army. Hamas rules that beleaguered territory as the virtual Taliban of the eastern Mediterranean, but the Lebanese will blow their country to hell and gone all over again before submitting to something like that. Hezbollah knows it, as do the Syrians and the Iranians. They also know, or at least think they know, that they can bully the rest of the country into surrendering on the two most crucial items on its agenda, the ones that give Hezbollah the latitude to do whatever it wants in the Shia-majority areas that it does control directly.

We’re about to find out if that’s actually true. We’ll also most likely find out how true it remains if Israel takes the gloves off the next time there’s war.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Shahzad wasn’t the only crazed real-estate victim, you know. A sample: “The sack of Rome, in A.D. 476, was ordered by a barbarian named Odoacer, who had squandered the inheritance left him by his grandfather Attila on a Helvetian buy-leaseback garrison conversion deal brokered by a cabal of shady Brigantes. And the assassination of Julius Caesar was almost certainly triggered by Brutus’s getting scammed on a Transalpine Gaul timeshare deal by Marc Antony.” Read the whole hilarious piece.

Check out the best theoretical Newsweek cover lines: “The Jesus Twitter: How Social Networking Can Save Your Family (and your soul).”

The most succinct explanation of Democrats’ woes, from Charlie Cook: “The catch is they wanted to do the wrong things.”

What did we learn this week? “We’ve heard a lot about the enthusiasm gap between GOP and Dem voters. But turnout from all three primaries this week shows Dems really do have something to worry about — it’s hard to explain a dropoff in turnout virtually across the board, even amid competitive primaries. The DNC is about to spend $30M to get their voters to the polls; it’s no stretch to say the party’s entire hopes rest on that program’s success.”

It seems as though Democrats don’t like him that much either: Arlen Specter drops behind Joe Sestak in the latest Pennsylvania Senate primary poll.

The “most transparent administration in history“? — “The top GOP member of the Senate Intelligence Committee blasted Attorney General Eric Holder on Saturday for having allegedly refused to brief senators on last weekend’s attempted Times Square bombing. Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), the ranking member of the intelligence panel, accused Holder of obstructing congressional inquiries into the attempted attack. ‘It seems Attorney General Holder is only interested in looking tough on terrorism on TV since he’s now told the intelligence community to skirt the national-security law and give only the details he wants and when to Congress,’ Bond said Saturday.”

As America recedes, Iran and Syria assert themselves in the Middle East: “President Michel Suleiman said Saturday that Lebanon ‘cannot and must not’ tell Hezbollah to disarm before reaching a deal on a defense strategy that would also address any future Israeli attacks. Israeli officials are concerned with Hezbollah’s recent armament. Head of the Military Intelligence’s (MI) research department Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz said on Tuesday that ‘weapons are transferred to Hezbollah on a regular basis and this transfer is organized by the Syrian and Iranian regimes.'”

Tom Campbell sounds as though he’s using Charlie Crist’s playbook: “Former Republican Rep. Tom Campbell, taking criticism in the California Senate primary for his socially liberal positions, is making the case that his unorthodox issue profile makes him the strongest candidate to take on Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer this fall. Campbell supports abortion rights and gay marriage, and argues that Boxer’s greatest asset against either of his two Republican opponents, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, would be the state’s decidedly un-conservative social views.” But it has never really worked for him in two failed Senate runs: “‘Tom Campbell has made this argument during both of his previous candidacies for the U.S. Senate and guess what the outcome was,’ Fiorina spokeswoman Julie Soderlund said. ‘He lost. And in 2000, he lost big.'”

Shahzad wasn’t the only crazed real-estate victim, you know. A sample: “The sack of Rome, in A.D. 476, was ordered by a barbarian named Odoacer, who had squandered the inheritance left him by his grandfather Attila on a Helvetian buy-leaseback garrison conversion deal brokered by a cabal of shady Brigantes. And the assassination of Julius Caesar was almost certainly triggered by Brutus’s getting scammed on a Transalpine Gaul timeshare deal by Marc Antony.” Read the whole hilarious piece.

Check out the best theoretical Newsweek cover lines: “The Jesus Twitter: How Social Networking Can Save Your Family (and your soul).”

The most succinct explanation of Democrats’ woes, from Charlie Cook: “The catch is they wanted to do the wrong things.”

What did we learn this week? “We’ve heard a lot about the enthusiasm gap between GOP and Dem voters. But turnout from all three primaries this week shows Dems really do have something to worry about — it’s hard to explain a dropoff in turnout virtually across the board, even amid competitive primaries. The DNC is about to spend $30M to get their voters to the polls; it’s no stretch to say the party’s entire hopes rest on that program’s success.”

It seems as though Democrats don’t like him that much either: Arlen Specter drops behind Joe Sestak in the latest Pennsylvania Senate primary poll.

The “most transparent administration in history“? — “The top GOP member of the Senate Intelligence Committee blasted Attorney General Eric Holder on Saturday for having allegedly refused to brief senators on last weekend’s attempted Times Square bombing. Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), the ranking member of the intelligence panel, accused Holder of obstructing congressional inquiries into the attempted attack. ‘It seems Attorney General Holder is only interested in looking tough on terrorism on TV since he’s now told the intelligence community to skirt the national-security law and give only the details he wants and when to Congress,’ Bond said Saturday.”

As America recedes, Iran and Syria assert themselves in the Middle East: “President Michel Suleiman said Saturday that Lebanon ‘cannot and must not’ tell Hezbollah to disarm before reaching a deal on a defense strategy that would also address any future Israeli attacks. Israeli officials are concerned with Hezbollah’s recent armament. Head of the Military Intelligence’s (MI) research department Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz said on Tuesday that ‘weapons are transferred to Hezbollah on a regular basis and this transfer is organized by the Syrian and Iranian regimes.'”

Tom Campbell sounds as though he’s using Charlie Crist’s playbook: “Former Republican Rep. Tom Campbell, taking criticism in the California Senate primary for his socially liberal positions, is making the case that his unorthodox issue profile makes him the strongest candidate to take on Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer this fall. Campbell supports abortion rights and gay marriage, and argues that Boxer’s greatest asset against either of his two Republican opponents, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, would be the state’s decidedly un-conservative social views.” But it has never really worked for him in two failed Senate runs: “‘Tom Campbell has made this argument during both of his previous candidacies for the U.S. Senate and guess what the outcome was,’ Fiorina spokeswoman Julie Soderlund said. ‘He lost. And in 2000, he lost big.'”

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Hezbollah’s Victory

Lebanon’s “March 14” majority coalition in parliament managed to hammer out a temporary agreement with the Hezbollah-led opposition in Doha, Qatar, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to raise a toast to the new peace in Beirut just yet. The streets are quiet and normal again for the most part, but none of Lebanon’s most serious problems have been resolved. While diplomats from Washington to Riyadh are pretending, for form’s sake, that this is a terrific breakthrough for stability and national unity, Charles Malik put it more bluntly and honestly at the Lebanese Political Journal. “The Doha negotiations were never meant to solve everything,” he wrote. “They were meant to stall the violence until after the summer tourist season is over.”

Supposedly this agreement, like most of Lebanon’s arrangements, is a compromise that leaves both parties unsatisfied. But I’m having a hard time figuring out what, exactly, Hezbollah has to be gloomy about. Eighteen months ago thousands of Hezbollah supporters built a tent city downtown and forced the semi-permanent closure of much of the city center. They demanded enough seats in the cabinet to wield veto power over any decision the government makes, despite the fact that they couldn’t win enough seats in the last election to earn it. Well, they finally got their long-demanded blocking minority status in Doha, so they happily took down their tent city. If this weren’t a victory, they’d still be seething downtown.

And it’s a dangerous precedent. A year and a half of mostly non-violent resistance yielded Hezbollah bupkis. After one week of murder and mayhem, the Lebanese government caved. The lesson for Hezbollah is clear: when things don’t go your way, take the rifles out of the garage, hit the streets, and start shooting people and burning down buildings.

March 14’s biggest supposed “victory” at Doha is the election to the presidency of Lebanese Army Commander Michel Suleiman, who himself was always considered a compromise candidate. The majority coalition would never elect him if they could pick whomever they want. Suleiman is well-known as a moderate pro-Syrian. He may be an improvement over Lebanon’s last president, Emile Lahoud, who was nothing if not a tool of Syria’s tyrant Bashar Assad, but frankly no one could be worse than Lahoud outside the ranks of the blatantly fascist Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Hezbollah still gets to keep the unilaterally installed high-tech surveillance system in Lebanon’s only international airport, and of course its fighters will hold onto their illegal weapons. With freshly minted blocking minority powers, Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has effectively neutralized any and all government power that gets in the way of his own. He can’t rule the whole country; nobody can. But he and his militia have the radical freedom to do whatever they please. They can unilaterally start wars with other countries and murder anyone in Lebanon who gets in the way. Hezbollah’s power is now at its apogee.

It may take a while, but something will give. If disgruntled radical Sunnis don’t pick a fight with their belligerent Shia counterparts, Hezbollah will eventually face the Israel Defense Forces again. No one can know what exactly will happen and when, but more war is inevitable as long as violent “resistance” is Hezbollah’s raison d’être.

During Nasrallah’s July 2006 war against Israel, thousands of Shia refugees from Hezbollah’s bombarded strongholds fled north to Beirut as refugees. Christian and Sunni Lebanese took these people in despite anger at Hezbollah for starting a war no one else wanted. Don’t expect that to happen again. Hezbollah’s supporters may find themselves facing conflict on two fronts next time the Israel Defense Forces show up in a bad mood.

Lebanon’s “March 14” majority coalition in parliament managed to hammer out a temporary agreement with the Hezbollah-led opposition in Doha, Qatar, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to raise a toast to the new peace in Beirut just yet. The streets are quiet and normal again for the most part, but none of Lebanon’s most serious problems have been resolved. While diplomats from Washington to Riyadh are pretending, for form’s sake, that this is a terrific breakthrough for stability and national unity, Charles Malik put it more bluntly and honestly at the Lebanese Political Journal. “The Doha negotiations were never meant to solve everything,” he wrote. “They were meant to stall the violence until after the summer tourist season is over.”

Supposedly this agreement, like most of Lebanon’s arrangements, is a compromise that leaves both parties unsatisfied. But I’m having a hard time figuring out what, exactly, Hezbollah has to be gloomy about. Eighteen months ago thousands of Hezbollah supporters built a tent city downtown and forced the semi-permanent closure of much of the city center. They demanded enough seats in the cabinet to wield veto power over any decision the government makes, despite the fact that they couldn’t win enough seats in the last election to earn it. Well, they finally got their long-demanded blocking minority status in Doha, so they happily took down their tent city. If this weren’t a victory, they’d still be seething downtown.

And it’s a dangerous precedent. A year and a half of mostly non-violent resistance yielded Hezbollah bupkis. After one week of murder and mayhem, the Lebanese government caved. The lesson for Hezbollah is clear: when things don’t go your way, take the rifles out of the garage, hit the streets, and start shooting people and burning down buildings.

March 14’s biggest supposed “victory” at Doha is the election to the presidency of Lebanese Army Commander Michel Suleiman, who himself was always considered a compromise candidate. The majority coalition would never elect him if they could pick whomever they want. Suleiman is well-known as a moderate pro-Syrian. He may be an improvement over Lebanon’s last president, Emile Lahoud, who was nothing if not a tool of Syria’s tyrant Bashar Assad, but frankly no one could be worse than Lahoud outside the ranks of the blatantly fascist Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Hezbollah still gets to keep the unilaterally installed high-tech surveillance system in Lebanon’s only international airport, and of course its fighters will hold onto their illegal weapons. With freshly minted blocking minority powers, Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has effectively neutralized any and all government power that gets in the way of his own. He can’t rule the whole country; nobody can. But he and his militia have the radical freedom to do whatever they please. They can unilaterally start wars with other countries and murder anyone in Lebanon who gets in the way. Hezbollah’s power is now at its apogee.

It may take a while, but something will give. If disgruntled radical Sunnis don’t pick a fight with their belligerent Shia counterparts, Hezbollah will eventually face the Israel Defense Forces again. No one can know what exactly will happen and when, but more war is inevitable as long as violent “resistance” is Hezbollah’s raison d’être.

During Nasrallah’s July 2006 war against Israel, thousands of Shia refugees from Hezbollah’s bombarded strongholds fled north to Beirut as refugees. Christian and Sunni Lebanese took these people in despite anger at Hezbollah for starting a war no one else wanted. Don’t expect that to happen again. Hezbollah’s supporters may find themselves facing conflict on two fronts next time the Israel Defense Forces show up in a bad mood.

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Doh! (As in Doha)

Yesterday’s Qatari-sponsored agreement among Lebanese factions represents a major victory for Hezbollah and Syria. After all, both parties finally got what they had long demanded: Hezbollah will receive eleven seats in the cabinet-one more than it needed to secure veto power over all governmental decisions. The agreement also spells a major loss for the Bush administration, which had long demanded that Hezbollah submit to the will of the Lebanese majority and confirm General Michel Suleiman as president without such preconditions.

Of course, this didn’t stop the State Department from trying to sell the agreement as a “positive step.” During his press conference yesterday, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch argued that the agreement advanced UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701, saying that there is “quite a bit of language” in the agreement regarding Hezbollah’s disarmament. Moreover, he said, the agreement signified that the “moral plane” had shifted against Hezbollah’s favor, catalyzing progress-however slowly-on this critical issue.

Yet Welch’s optimism is confounding. Indeed, the agreement says nothing at all about Hezbollah’s disarmament. Rather, it calls for “dialogue over strengthening state authority over all parts of Lebanon”–in other words, dialogue over an issue that was supposed to have been resolved after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war! Moreover, it calls for “defining the relations between the state and the different political groups in the country”–a process that will now lean heavily in Hezbollah’s favor, given its strengthened position within the Lebanese cabinet. Finally, there’s good reason to doubt that security and military powers will be “solely in the hands of the state” and that this authority will be spread out “over all parts of the country so that outlaws will have no safe havens.” Again, this is something that was supposed to have been in place following the 2006 war, but which Hezbollah has long evaded thanks to its military superiority and sustained support from Iran and Syria.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of the “Doha agreement” is its transience: it will expire prior to the 2009 parliamentary elections, lasting just long enough for Hezbollah to exert substantial influence in drafting a new elections law. As a result, the agreement sounds eerily similar to the “Mecca Accord” that Hamas and Fatah signed in February 2007, which heralded an era of “national unity” governance-that is, until Hamas seized Gaza four months later. Indeed, we have seen how Hezbollah and Hamas both resort to violence in lieu of political compromise (h/t Noah Pollak). These short-term agreements are an integral part of that strategy.

Yesterday’s Qatari-sponsored agreement among Lebanese factions represents a major victory for Hezbollah and Syria. After all, both parties finally got what they had long demanded: Hezbollah will receive eleven seats in the cabinet-one more than it needed to secure veto power over all governmental decisions. The agreement also spells a major loss for the Bush administration, which had long demanded that Hezbollah submit to the will of the Lebanese majority and confirm General Michel Suleiman as president without such preconditions.

Of course, this didn’t stop the State Department from trying to sell the agreement as a “positive step.” During his press conference yesterday, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch argued that the agreement advanced UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701, saying that there is “quite a bit of language” in the agreement regarding Hezbollah’s disarmament. Moreover, he said, the agreement signified that the “moral plane” had shifted against Hezbollah’s favor, catalyzing progress-however slowly-on this critical issue.

Yet Welch’s optimism is confounding. Indeed, the agreement says nothing at all about Hezbollah’s disarmament. Rather, it calls for “dialogue over strengthening state authority over all parts of Lebanon”–in other words, dialogue over an issue that was supposed to have been resolved after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war! Moreover, it calls for “defining the relations between the state and the different political groups in the country”–a process that will now lean heavily in Hezbollah’s favor, given its strengthened position within the Lebanese cabinet. Finally, there’s good reason to doubt that security and military powers will be “solely in the hands of the state” and that this authority will be spread out “over all parts of the country so that outlaws will have no safe havens.” Again, this is something that was supposed to have been in place following the 2006 war, but which Hezbollah has long evaded thanks to its military superiority and sustained support from Iran and Syria.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of the “Doha agreement” is its transience: it will expire prior to the 2009 parliamentary elections, lasting just long enough for Hezbollah to exert substantial influence in drafting a new elections law. As a result, the agreement sounds eerily similar to the “Mecca Accord” that Hamas and Fatah signed in February 2007, which heralded an era of “national unity” governance-that is, until Hamas seized Gaza four months later. Indeed, we have seen how Hezbollah and Hamas both resort to violence in lieu of political compromise (h/t Noah Pollak). These short-term agreements are an integral part of that strategy.

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Olmert’s Contradictory Strategy

For the first time since Syria withdrew from Lebanon over three years ago, Arab states are in broad consensus that Damascus is still meddling in Lebanese politics.

Indeed, Lebanon has been without a president since November because Hezbollah–with Syria’s political backing–is demanding cabinet veto power in exchange for approving Gen. Michel Suleiman as president.  In response, Egypt and Syria threatened to boycott the upcoming Arab League conference in Damascus, while Gulf states withheld their decisions to attend the conference until Syrian President Bashar al-Assad formally invited Lebanon.  Still, only 12 of 22 Arab heads-of-state have announced that they will attend.  Of course, this unity against Syria’s involvement in Lebanon has profound implications for Hezbollah, which depends on Syria’s political support for domestic leverage.

If you were prime minister of Israel, you would probably see this as a good thing.  After all, in the aftermath of Imad Mughniyeh’s assassination, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah announced preparations for another war against Israel, further hinting that Hezbollah would target Israeli interests abroad.  Moreover, Hezbollah is a key conduit for delivering Iranian weapons to Hamas in Gaza. As Hezbollah’s al-Manar reported on Wednesday, Iran is attempting to transport anti-aircraft systems to Gaza that could hit Israeli airbases in the Negev.  If Syrian support is threatened, Hezbollah will have to redouble its domestic political efforts, potentially stalling its strategy against Israel.

Yet during a cabinet meeting earlier this week, Olmert called for opening negotiations with Syria–throwing the Assad regime a potential lifesaver as Arab consensus against Damascus developed.  Indeed, negotiating with Syria would undermine western attempts to hold Assad accountable for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri–providing a significant boost to Hezbollah’s March 8th Alliance.  In short, at the very moment that Olmert should be most focused on weakening Hezbollah, he is advocating a policy that would do the opposite.

Apparently, Olmert believes that, through peace negotiations, Israel can induce Syria to abandon “its involvement in terrorism and extricate it from the axis of evil.”  However, yesterday’s events should convince him that this is a fantasy.  For starters, Palestinian Islamic Jihad–whose operatives often receive training in Syria–attacked an Israeli jeep operating along the Israeli-Gaza border, using a sophisticated device likely made in Iran.  At the same time, Assad received the Iranian first vice-president in Damascus, with the two sides agreeing to link the Syrian electricity network to Iran’s grid.

Make no mistake: these Iranian-Syrian links will not be broken any time soon.  Olmert should recognize this reality, and take advantage of the rare opportunities that Arab consensus against Damascus provides for weakening Hezbollah politically.

For the first time since Syria withdrew from Lebanon over three years ago, Arab states are in broad consensus that Damascus is still meddling in Lebanese politics.

Indeed, Lebanon has been without a president since November because Hezbollah–with Syria’s political backing–is demanding cabinet veto power in exchange for approving Gen. Michel Suleiman as president.  In response, Egypt and Syria threatened to boycott the upcoming Arab League conference in Damascus, while Gulf states withheld their decisions to attend the conference until Syrian President Bashar al-Assad formally invited Lebanon.  Still, only 12 of 22 Arab heads-of-state have announced that they will attend.  Of course, this unity against Syria’s involvement in Lebanon has profound implications for Hezbollah, which depends on Syria’s political support for domestic leverage.

If you were prime minister of Israel, you would probably see this as a good thing.  After all, in the aftermath of Imad Mughniyeh’s assassination, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah announced preparations for another war against Israel, further hinting that Hezbollah would target Israeli interests abroad.  Moreover, Hezbollah is a key conduit for delivering Iranian weapons to Hamas in Gaza. As Hezbollah’s al-Manar reported on Wednesday, Iran is attempting to transport anti-aircraft systems to Gaza that could hit Israeli airbases in the Negev.  If Syrian support is threatened, Hezbollah will have to redouble its domestic political efforts, potentially stalling its strategy against Israel.

Yet during a cabinet meeting earlier this week, Olmert called for opening negotiations with Syria–throwing the Assad regime a potential lifesaver as Arab consensus against Damascus developed.  Indeed, negotiating with Syria would undermine western attempts to hold Assad accountable for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri–providing a significant boost to Hezbollah’s March 8th Alliance.  In short, at the very moment that Olmert should be most focused on weakening Hezbollah, he is advocating a policy that would do the opposite.

Apparently, Olmert believes that, through peace negotiations, Israel can induce Syria to abandon “its involvement in terrorism and extricate it from the axis of evil.”  However, yesterday’s events should convince him that this is a fantasy.  For starters, Palestinian Islamic Jihad–whose operatives often receive training in Syria–attacked an Israeli jeep operating along the Israeli-Gaza border, using a sophisticated device likely made in Iran.  At the same time, Assad received the Iranian first vice-president in Damascus, with the two sides agreeing to link the Syrian electricity network to Iran’s grid.

Make no mistake: these Iranian-Syrian links will not be broken any time soon.  Olmert should recognize this reality, and take advantage of the rare opportunities that Arab consensus against Damascus provides for weakening Hezbollah politically.

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Syria and Iran Gain in Lebanon

On Sunday, the Lebanese parliament postponed its election of a new president until February 11, marking the thirteenth time it has done so since Syrian puppet Emile Lahoud’s term officially ended on November 23. The ongoing political crisis has pitted the western-backed parliamentary majority, which has long supported the election of General Michel Suleiman, against the Hezbollah-led opposition, which has blocked a necessary two-thirds quorum from approving him; the opposition has further demanded a national unity government that would give it veto power. Officials fear that the continued standoff will erupt in political violence, and Hezbollah has threatened civil disobedience.

Thus far, western attempts to end the crisis have gone nowhere. Earlier this month, France boldly accused Syria of exacerbating the situation, punishing Damascus with a rare diplomatic boycott. At the time, I argued that this created an opening for the Bush administration, which could use the suddenly unified western front vis-à-vis Syria as leverage against the Assad regime, offering broad normalization in exchange for a serious Syrian-Israeli peace effort. The Bush administration, I reasoned, could thus avoid sacrificing the U.N.’s investigation into the Hariri assassination—in which Damascus has been implicated—which has long been seen as the price for Syrian-Israeli peace.

Yet on his recent tour of the Middle East, President Bush barely mentioned the crisis in Lebanon, instead emphasizing the pipedream of Israeli-Palestinian peace as the primary means for countering Iran. This approach was disastrous, opening the door for players far less committed to containing Iran to mediate—a boon for Iran and its allies.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa’s mediation attempt in Beirut last week is case-in-point. Moussa’s plan provided for Suleiman’s immediate election, further denying the ruling collation an absolute majority and the opposition a veto. These terms were largely favorable towards Syria, given that they blunted the power of the anti-Syrian majority while enhancing the role of Suleiman, who is seen as friendly towards Syria’s interests in Lebanon. When majority leader Saad Hariri endorsed the terms of the proposal earlier this month, it represented a victory for the pro-Syrian opposition.

But the opposition was hardly satisfied. After Moussa departed, Lebanese Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri of the Shiite Amal Party declared the initiative dead, insisting that Arab foreign ministers draw up new terms—ones much more favorable to the Hezbollah-led opposition. Shortly thereafter, Berri announced a new condition for resolving the crisis: reconciling Syria with Saudi Arabia. In this condition, Berri mortgaged Lebanese stability on Iranian geostrategy: Saudi-Syrian rapprochement would represent a breach of the U.S.-Saudi alliance and strengthen Iran’s regional position. Indeed, it is hardly coincidental that Berri’s statements included a profession of support for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As I have written previously, the fate of Lebanon is critical to countering Iranian ascendancy. The longer the Bush administration waits to address the current Lebanese presidential crisis seriously, the better the terms of a future political settlement will be for Iran and its local allies.

On Sunday, the Lebanese parliament postponed its election of a new president until February 11, marking the thirteenth time it has done so since Syrian puppet Emile Lahoud’s term officially ended on November 23. The ongoing political crisis has pitted the western-backed parliamentary majority, which has long supported the election of General Michel Suleiman, against the Hezbollah-led opposition, which has blocked a necessary two-thirds quorum from approving him; the opposition has further demanded a national unity government that would give it veto power. Officials fear that the continued standoff will erupt in political violence, and Hezbollah has threatened civil disobedience.

Thus far, western attempts to end the crisis have gone nowhere. Earlier this month, France boldly accused Syria of exacerbating the situation, punishing Damascus with a rare diplomatic boycott. At the time, I argued that this created an opening for the Bush administration, which could use the suddenly unified western front vis-à-vis Syria as leverage against the Assad regime, offering broad normalization in exchange for a serious Syrian-Israeli peace effort. The Bush administration, I reasoned, could thus avoid sacrificing the U.N.’s investigation into the Hariri assassination—in which Damascus has been implicated—which has long been seen as the price for Syrian-Israeli peace.

Yet on his recent tour of the Middle East, President Bush barely mentioned the crisis in Lebanon, instead emphasizing the pipedream of Israeli-Palestinian peace as the primary means for countering Iran. This approach was disastrous, opening the door for players far less committed to containing Iran to mediate—a boon for Iran and its allies.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa’s mediation attempt in Beirut last week is case-in-point. Moussa’s plan provided for Suleiman’s immediate election, further denying the ruling collation an absolute majority and the opposition a veto. These terms were largely favorable towards Syria, given that they blunted the power of the anti-Syrian majority while enhancing the role of Suleiman, who is seen as friendly towards Syria’s interests in Lebanon. When majority leader Saad Hariri endorsed the terms of the proposal earlier this month, it represented a victory for the pro-Syrian opposition.

But the opposition was hardly satisfied. After Moussa departed, Lebanese Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri of the Shiite Amal Party declared the initiative dead, insisting that Arab foreign ministers draw up new terms—ones much more favorable to the Hezbollah-led opposition. Shortly thereafter, Berri announced a new condition for resolving the crisis: reconciling Syria with Saudi Arabia. In this condition, Berri mortgaged Lebanese stability on Iranian geostrategy: Saudi-Syrian rapprochement would represent a breach of the U.S.-Saudi alliance and strengthen Iran’s regional position. Indeed, it is hardly coincidental that Berri’s statements included a profession of support for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As I have written previously, the fate of Lebanon is critical to countering Iranian ascendancy. The longer the Bush administration waits to address the current Lebanese presidential crisis seriously, the better the terms of a future political settlement will be for Iran and its local allies.

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The Price of Engaging Syria

After the Annapolis conference, there was a brief burst of optimism about the prospects of “engaging” rather than confronting Syria. Advocates of this approach pointed to the fact that Syria agreed to send its deputy foreign minister to this meeting as a great triumph. They also pointed to more ambiguous evidence of a reduction in the number of jihadists crossing from Syria into Iraq, although it’s unclear whether this is due to action on the part of the Syrian government or by American and Iraqi security forces, or whether it is due simply to an overall decline in the number of terrorists willing to kill themselves in a losing cause.

A further cause for optimism was said to be the agreement reached between Syrian-backed forces in Lebanon and their Franco-American-backed adversaries for the army commander, General Michel Suleiman, to take over as the country’s President, thus breaking a long impasse.

Then this week a car bomb rubs out Brigadier General Francois Hajj, one of Suleiman’s top officers and a leading candidate to succeed him as army chief of staff. No one knows who planted the bomb, but suspicions naturally focus on Syria, which has a long history of using such weapons to kill and intimidate its opponents in Lebanese politics. Indeed, a special UN tribunal has found Syrian fingerprints all over the car bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Syria seems plainly intent on reestablishing Lebanon firmly within its sphere of influence, using Hizballah and Sunni terrorist groups as proxies. The price of “engagement” is to let the Syrians have their way, thus betraying Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution. That’s a high price to pay, especially since it’s far from clear what, if anything, Syria will do for us in return.

After the Annapolis conference, there was a brief burst of optimism about the prospects of “engaging” rather than confronting Syria. Advocates of this approach pointed to the fact that Syria agreed to send its deputy foreign minister to this meeting as a great triumph. They also pointed to more ambiguous evidence of a reduction in the number of jihadists crossing from Syria into Iraq, although it’s unclear whether this is due to action on the part of the Syrian government or by American and Iraqi security forces, or whether it is due simply to an overall decline in the number of terrorists willing to kill themselves in a losing cause.

A further cause for optimism was said to be the agreement reached between Syrian-backed forces in Lebanon and their Franco-American-backed adversaries for the army commander, General Michel Suleiman, to take over as the country’s President, thus breaking a long impasse.

Then this week a car bomb rubs out Brigadier General Francois Hajj, one of Suleiman’s top officers and a leading candidate to succeed him as army chief of staff. No one knows who planted the bomb, but suspicions naturally focus on Syria, which has a long history of using such weapons to kill and intimidate its opponents in Lebanese politics. Indeed, a special UN tribunal has found Syrian fingerprints all over the car bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Syria seems plainly intent on reestablishing Lebanon firmly within its sphere of influence, using Hizballah and Sunni terrorist groups as proxies. The price of “engagement” is to let the Syrians have their way, thus betraying Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution. That’s a high price to pay, especially since it’s far from clear what, if anything, Syria will do for us in return.

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